I feel privileged to have been given the task to lead the OVGA team for the next four years in its challenging role that I describe as advocate for the end user.
Those who are familiar with the OVGA remit may have watched, since the office was established in 2006, as we have worked to embed, in government, a commitment to getting the best possible design outcomes across a diverse range of project types. In some of my time as Associate Government Architect, we seemed quietly (albeit effectively) operating in the eye of a storm. We have now been hurled into the current of Melbourne in a state of serious change – projects are being planned, visioned, designed and realised, bids are solicited and unsolicited, and major tracts of the city are being considered for urban renewal. These are projects that must be understood, whether by scale, impact, use or location, as city changing. And when we change things, we must make sure they are being changed for the better.
The best cities in the world are busy, economically thriving, healthy, loved by their citizens, great to live in and great to visit. It is a significant responsibility to ensure change in our built environment is never dictated purely by economics, but is always overlaid by deep considerations about the quality of ‘place’. With the appointment of a new Government Architect, comes a window of opportunity to deliberate on what the OVGA needs to look like going into the next four years, in order to best address the scale of the task. How best can our small team impact and embed a requirement for collaborative, cross-disciplinary, best practice design outcomes on projects in Victoria’s built environment?
The impact of the OVGA might be directly related to our ability to stay in the crossfire.
Here are some thoughts:
OUR PUBLIC BUILDINGS & WORKS SHOULD SET AN EXAMPLE
As a great fan of the public building, I am conscious that we no longer signify our community pride through main street public buildings like the post office or the library. These gathering places are often now embedded within commercial properties and this is a great loss to our structures of place. That said, government still builds public interventions, which continue to be buildings and places that can do so much – not just as cultural institutions – but as built signifiers of commitment to health, education and transport.
Victoria is engaged too in many ‘everyday’ public building projects including the level crossing separations that will impact 50 sites across metropolitan Melbourne, the new underground metro that will be embedded through the central city, major roads projects and the consequential developments that may spring out of some of these interventions. These projects affect the places and spaces that we as a community occupy everyday and need as much real commitment to a quality outcome as does a major cultural institution.
All public buildings should be models of the value that the State places on the three fundamentals of architecture, coined by Vitruvius – utilitas, venustas, firmistas (function, materiality, delight). Public buildings and works should serve as models for community expectation in all projects, both public and private. Our public projects should model sustainable behaviours, ranging from privileging the pedestrian experience through to considering long-term energy use and running costs. Our public projects should demonstrate an understanding of build and material quality, its link to maintenance, and its role and contribution to creating culture. Our public projects should be beautiful, and we should be pleased and proud to have them with us forever.
GUIDANCE & CONTROL
There is always a question over the tools that are used to define frameworks and to create opportunities for balanced development of the places we live, work and visit.
Our legislation and official guidance should commit more aspirationally to achieving, maintaining and promoting a great living, working and visitor environment. Guidance and control should have, as a fundamental, the requirement to reduce environmental damage and to preserve our natural resources. Guidance and control needs to be shaped so it works effectively to aspire to excellence in future visions, while protecting that which needs protection. Without being nostalgic, change needs care to ensure we do not lose our memories. Through integrating guidance and education, there is a potential means to bolster public buy-in.
CULTURE & EDUCATION
Our daily lives are made richer when we identify with, and take inspiration from, the places we live and work. Our architecture, our built environment, and our landscapes need to be understood as a highly visible, and a highly inhabitable, part of our culture. We seem to lack a deep understanding that it takes layers of excellence to achieve and maintain ‘culture’, and I am concerned we lack real training in building technique, and in craft.
I’d like to be overwhelmed by the professional competence of those who design our built environment – in both the real world and the virtual. Education at all levels has the capacity to raise the knowledge, awareness and the cultural intelligence of our population. I have always believed there would be an ‘invisible’ impact if we used the built environment in education from an early age – an obvious example would be to teach trigonometry to secondary students through studying the triangulated façade at federation square.
An intelligent client prepares a great brief, and Government needs to be the most intelligent of clients. A great brief, when combined with highly developed professional skills, results in an architecture, a built environment or a landscape that is functional, technical, healthy to occupy, and makes an aesthetic contribution to its place. It is important that we acknowledge our built mistakes of the past, and make brave, city changing decisions where they need to be made
A true quality-based operating culture would have significant impact. Quality based selection processes that unswervingly acknowledge education, experience and achievement benchmarks needs to be combined with competition processes that seek out genuine exemplary design solutions.
True cross-disciplinary collaboration, shared values and commitments, and a real understanding of the design principles that underlie better places and spaces for our community, are paramount to achieving the best possible integrated built environment / building / public realm outcomes.
Public awareness, concern and aspiration in our built environment, architecture and landscape remains undeveloped (it is interesting to consider the changes in awareness and interest regarding cooking, nutrition and food through television and other media). More exhibitions, discourse, publications, dissemination of information about the places we live, work, and visit would have impact.
A highly visible permanent place in our city that celebrates awareness of, and engagement in, architecture, design and the built environment would inform, educate and engage our community, our visitors, our politicians, and would contribute to informed decision making.
Despite personal preferences, the Government Architect’s role is one requiring both judgement and perspective. It is important not to jump to conclusions, and to maintain the capacity to change one’s mind in light of convincing evidence. I come from an architectural background embedded in the real world. I appreciate beauty, excellence and skilled performance in various domains. I love detail, understand construction, and recognise the real contingencies of building. I believe strongly that our built environment should be the best it can possibly be – our buildings and the places we inhabit should be beautiful and functional now, and they should remain that way for years to come.
During this period of activity in our public realm, I hope the OVGA can assist, project by project, site by site – a beautiful, functional, quality and integrated built environment take shape, across our state.